Billy Corgan of the Smashing Pumpkins can’t think of one new rock album that turned him on in 1998. “You don’t want to know what’s in my CD changer,” the singer, guitarist and songwriter warns before running down his current hit list: Best of Mountain; Songs From the Trilogy, by Philip Glass; a ’77 live album by Rainbow; a disc from the Lynyrd Skynyrd box set; a UFO best-of album; Maria Callas singing Madame Butterfly. “I’m reluctant to talk about what the next Pumpkins record is going to sound like,” Corgan cracks, “but I will tell you that it’s going to sound a lot like Mountain.”
Six months after the release of the band’s latest record, Adore, Corgan is working on a new Pumpkins LP. He has written fourteen songs and, with guitarist James Iha and bassist D’Arcy, will soon cut tracks with Flood, who co-produced the group’s 1995 mega-seller, Mellon Collie and the Infinite Sadness. In spite of what Corgan calls “the cumulative toll” of the past year, particularly the tepid public response to Adore, the Pumpkins are far from the breakup point.
It has been a mixed-blessing ’98. To date, Adore has sold about 830,000 copies in the U.S. — far less than Mellon Collie and the Pumpkins’ 1993 smash, Siamese Dream (4.2 million copies each). A planned series of free outdoor Pumpkins shows in the U.S. fell through, and Corgan’s songwriting contributions to Hole’s Celebrity Skin became a bone of public contention between Corgan and Hole’s Courtney Love.
But it was a good year on tour. In Europe, the Pumpkins played well-received shows in unconventional venues; the band also did charity gigs in fifteen North American cities, donating more than $2.7 million in proceeds to organizations like Hale House, in New York, and the Make-a-Wish Foundation in Chicago.
Corgan declines to talk about the Hole album; he hasn’t listened to the final product (“Bad taste in my mouth,” he says). He will talk only off the record about Marily Manson’s Mechanical Animals, which he was involved with in an early advisory capacity. But Corgan speaks frankly about his disappointments, the lessons learned and the immediate future. He says that the best thing to come out of Adore is “a reaffirmation that I love music. And I love to perform. But I gotta do it my way.”
How would you describe the past year — as a success, a failure or inconclusive?
My definitions of success have changed. If you’d asked me that question a year and a half ago, and I knew what I know now, I would say it was a failure, definitely. The person sitting in front of you — he believes it’s a success. You’re talking to a guy who in a two-year span hit every high, then lost his mother, lost his drummer — the person he was closest to in the band — and got divorced. Pumpkins or no Pumpkins, that’s head-check time. To have gone through that tunnel and come out the other side — I’m happy.
If you had Adore to do all over again, is there anything you would do differently?
I would have gone further with the vision of the record. I would have made it more opaque, more dense, more hard to reach. At some point along the way, I tried to pull it in a little bit. The most amazing compliment I get on this album is, people pull me aside and go, “I have been listening to this record over and over again. I can’t get it out of my stereo. When I first listened to it, I thought it was kind of OK. But it snuck up on me and hit me like a ton of bricks.” Maybe it’s like a Lou Reed, Berlin kind of record, where it’s got to sit for a while, be digested and maybe get away from the politic of a certain time.
What is it about Adore that people have misunderstood?
When I was on Howard Stern — I know this pissed a lot of people off — he asked me about being disappointed about the record. I said, “Well, I’m disappointed with our fans.” Which, you can imagine, lighted up the fucking Internet. What I was saying was, if I put out what is apparently a testy record, at least give me the chance. Listen to it and then tell me you don’t like it. I don’t think I got that chance.
Were you surprised at the lack of audience loyalty?
There’s definitely the moment where you go, “What happened?” You have this feeling of desertion: Maybe they don’t love you anymore. But then you realize it’s not about that. It’s not a negative energy. You have not created the positive energy, whatever it takes — that kinetic connection. At the end of the day, if people do not connect with Adore, that is my responsibility. But in fifteen years, if somebody pulls me over and says, “Adore is the best record you ever did,” I’m gonna fall over laughing.
When I saw you in the studio during the Adore sessions in January, you were recording a song, “Let Me Give the World to You,” that sounded like a total hit. Why didn’t you put it on the album?
Didn’t fit. And I knew it was a hit song. There was another song you didn’t hear that was a total hit song, a heavier song. I would play it for people and this is what they would say: “maximum KROQ rotation.” There’s no better example I can give you of the integrity that I tried to put into that record. I knew I was cutting my own wrist. But it’s like a test, and I stayed the course. Not only through the album, but through the tour. Now that I’ve passed that test, I don’t have that doubt about myself anymore. Whatever my integrity test in my head was, I passed.
When Adore came out, you went right to Europe and played some unusual venues.
We played a botanical garden in Brussels. We played Tivoli Gardens, in Copenhagen. We played on the water somewhere in Sweden. We did all these crazy things, and the energy was so amazing. Then we come to America and it’s like [makes the sound of squealing brakes]. That was weird, because we came in with such a positive energy, and we’d set up the charity tour.
What was the inspiration for the charity shows?
The original impetus was, we wanted to play free in twenty American, cities: Give us your park, we’ll set it up. It was that Seventies feeling — out in the park, listening to music. We thought it would be fantastic. And we got no, no, no, from everywhere, including Chicago. [The Pumpkins ultimately played a free show in Minneapolis for 100,000 people.]
How did the free tour then turn into a charity tour?
We didn’t want to let go of the idea of doing something different. The whole thing was to stick with the vibe of Adore through thick and thin. So we thought, “We’ll do theaters but give the money away. And if we are going to give money away, are we giving enough away? What is the point of rolling in saying it’s for charity and giving twenty grand?” That’s when we decided to belly up to the bar and put our money where our mouths are.
What about the shows? On the first night at Radio City Music Hall, in New York, you encored with “Transmission,” by Joy Division, and pulled kids from the audience onstage.
It started as a spontaneous act. Then we put it in the show, because it was too perfect. If we had a good show, we played “Transmission.” At the end, we’d pull kids out of the audience and give them our instruments. We’d leave the stage and the kids would continue to play. The sound, the exuberant teenage cacophony, was the beautiful way to end it. I remember, after we played in L.A., Gene Simmons from Kiss saying, “That’s one of the greatest things I’ve ever seen in my life, for you to break the fourth wall and make the audience part of the show.” Which is a pretty good compliment, because he’s a consummate showman.
Were there any other inspiring nights?
We were so confident that we did five or six shows where we did the whole Adore album, all fifteen songs — if you don’t count the last joke [the short piano code “17”].
Did you play the songs in the same order as on the record?
Nope, That would have been suicide. Playing the whole fucking album, that’s pretty close. On the entire tour, we played at most five songs from Mellon Collie. We did no songs from before Mellon Collie. Everything else was Adore. We went up with it — and we sank with it.
In the 1960s, superstars like the Beatles and the Beach Boys were releasing two albums a year, plus singles. The industry standard now is two years between albums: you had a three-year gap between Mellon Collie and Adore. Don’t you think that has a lot to do with the problem of audience loyalty?
You want to know what’s funny? Some people in my world think we didn’t wait long enough, because the Mellon Collie wave was so strong: “The people didn’t have a chance to get away from you.” There’s a thought in the music business that you have to have a downtime so that people can stop being sick of you. Now for someone like me, who writes thirty-plus songs a year, what the fuck am I supposed to do? I can only put out so many B sides. The desire to hit a big home run is dominating the music business. And the idea of great music finding a good audience is not enough — to the music business.
Which leads to my next question: Is rock dead? If so, does it matter?
Believe it or not, I’m guilty of saying the same thing [laughs]. I’m on Howard Stern; I say rock is dead. Angry phone calls: “Nashville Pussy are better than you guys.” I don’t care. Rock & roll is not about what you play, it’s about how you play it. It’s the spirit, OK? My rock & roll — alternative music — has been co-opted, become something easily imitable. So when I seek inside myself for what I want to do, my guide is: Is it pushy? Is it edgy? Is it going to make people uncomfortable? For the first four years of the Pumpkins, we didn’t get a lot of applause. We got a lot of head scratching. Then we got a lot of applause and patted ourselves on the backs for being so smart. Look where it got us. It’s hard to go back to the head scratching, but maybe that’s what you gotta do. It is that uncomfortableness, that uncertainty, that is the heart of rock & roll.
When you look at the Billboard album charts now, are you pissed that you’re not up there with ‘N Sync and Shania Twain? Or relieved?
Neither. On a cultural-observation level, I’m horrified, because there doesn’t seem to be any value. But this is not new. We kid ourselves into thinking, “Ha, ha, ha, the Seventies will never happen again.” But I look around and everyone’s doing cocaine and listening to techno while they’re drinking their cappuccinos — what’s the difference here?
Have you ever listened to a Backstreet Boys record just to see what the hoo-ha is about?
No. I have a kind of pleasant apathy toward all that kind of stuff. It doesn’t disturb me. What disturbs me is things that are given more weight than they deserve. There is so much that is disappointingly unreaching and unprogressive. But that’s not what the charts are about. Bob Dylan has never had a triple-platinum album. Frank Zappa had one Top Ten LP in his lifetime. Nick Drake died without having a record on any chart. The point is, do you want to be loved now, or do you want to be remembered? Both [laughs].
But if you can’t have both . . .
I don’t have any sentimental notion about how people are going to remember me. I’m prepared to spend the rest of my life playing clubs, if that means I’m playing music that I believe in. Don’t forget, I’ve tasted the top. There were great moments, and there were shitty moments. But I won’t go to my grave wondering what it was like. I hit a home run in the World Series. Even if they send me back to the minors, I did it.